Confession (자백, Yoon Jong-seok, 2022)

An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless. 

Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery. 

Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony. 

Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife. 

Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him. 

There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless. 


Confession screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.